Eydie Gormé died a few months ago. Unless you’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking world, that may not mean much to you. In honor of her passing, Agustín Cadena, a Mexican writer I translate, posted a link to her 1964 album with Trio Los Panchos. When I clicked it, “Sabor a mí” released a flood of memories as rich as those brought by Proust’s madeleine.
I took Spanish in a Florida high school in the early 60s, Cuban refugees just arriving. Taking high school Spanish was like being vaccinated, made certain you wouldn’t get it. Former Spanish students, pay attention. Whenever I see you, you apologize, wish you’d been a better student, wish you knew Spanish now. It wasn’t you. No one learns a language sitting in a classroom with 30 other students 4.5 hours a week.
Back in 1960 Florida, I tuned my radio to static-filled Cuban stations—no Spanish stations in Florida then—and caught a word as rarely as finding authentic tacos al pastor outside of México City. During my senior year, the first two Cuban girls showed up, dark and sultry, wearing tight, straight skirts in contrast to our full dresses billowing with crinolines. I didn’t understand a thing they said.
Nothing further (in Spanish) happened to me until I arrived in Denver late in 1967 and later married a Chicano. No one in Florida knew what a Chicano was. I had just learned. The one I married was born and raised, as were his parents, in the small towns of southern Colorado and New Mexico, speaking Spanish at home and being punished for speaking it at school. From this family, I learned my kitchen Spanish, and it’s still a molcajete to me because I’d never used a mortar.
I also learned that profanity is more satisfying in Spanish than in English, wherein it’s difficult to call someone a cabrón and really get a reaction. When, despite being blonde and 24, I was called negra or vieja, I learned to hear those things as cariños, endearments. Plenty of la gente took exception to the practice nonetheless. More than once some chicana demanded, “Why are you calling her dark and old lady? It’s rude!” But my friend Juanita Dominguez taught me that even profanity can be a cariño, as is sometimes the case in English. “Cabrona,” she’d say, wrapping me in a full body abrazo, “where have you been?” Somehow that felt more warm and fuzzy than today’s, “Where ya been, bitch?”
By then it was the 70s and el movimiento was cooking with gasolina. One activist spoke to my husband, pointedly ignoring me, switching to Spanish to ask, “es tu vieja?”
“Parece gabacha.” (Looks like a white girl to me.)
Before my husband could reply, I retorted, “Si, porque yo soy.”
I learned demonstration Spanish singing in dieciséis de septiembre marches: de colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera…no, no, no nos moverán…and participating in responsorial chanting: someone shouted, “viva la raza” and the crowd answered, “viva!” I spent one parade deciphering the message on the Brown Berets banner: es mejor morir de pie que seguir viviendo de rodillas. Emiliano Zapata. Better to die on your feet than to go on living on your knees. Andale. Those were the days, comadre.
At our parties, records were always on the turntable, mariachis, rancheras, Vicente Fernandez, José Alfredo Jiménez. My teenage stepson, going from the Beatles to the likes of Jethro Tull and then Black Sabbath in his own musical choices, sneered, “how can you like that cowboy caca?” When enough drinks had been drunk, the guitars came out. Everyone sang, whether they could or not, the same songs, over and over, old songs that wafted across the border generations ago: México lindo y querido (Jorge Negrete, 1940s) sung with soppy nostalgia by people who’d never been to México….no vale nada la vida … La Llorona…My stepchildren, who spoke no Spanish, were afraid of La Llorona.
But there were also the romantic ballads and boleros of the Eydie Gormé and Trio Los Panchos type…Solamente una vez…Perfidia… and Sabor a mí. When boozy singers lost the lyrics, I knew them, often with no clear idea what they meant. “No pretendo ser tu dueño,” they’d sing and look at me. “No soy nada,” I’d prompt quietly, “Yo no tengo vanidad.”
By the early 80s the marriage was done. So was the movement. Progress was made, surely, though surely there’s much more to do. People say we’re over racism in this country, but we’re not. Living in an ethnic minority world taught me that too. The marriage was a lousy match, but I took the rudiments of Spanish with me when I left, an enduring bond with stepchildren and grandchildren, a taste for chile verde, and a sentimental soft spot for songs with lyrics like these: yo no sé si tenga amor la eternidad/pero allá tal como aquí/en la boca llevarás/sabor a mí.
(A translation in which much is lost: I don’t know if love exists in eternity, but there, as much as here, you’ll find on your lips, a flavor of me.)